It is 6:54 a.m. when the sun wakes Jesse Biter as it peeks through the windows of his four-bedroom penthouse.
Within minutes, his two girls, ages 10 and 11, scamper through the $3.85 million Marina Tower condominium downtown. Biter cooks them breakfast; it reminds him of his own childhood.
Driving the girls to the Bay Haven School of Basics Plus will likely be the only time Biter will use his car that day. Dressed in jeans and a plaid shirt, with a fresh shave and gel in his hair, he strolls into his office — in the four-story building he owns — by 9:30 a.m.
Biter will typically spend the next nine hours in back-to-back meetings: start-up entrepreneurs pitching potential investments; car dealers inquiring about his new company, Dealers United; and product suppliers hoping to fend off his savvy price negotiations.
Lately, the 36-year-old entrepreneur, who made a multimillion-dollar fortune developing software for the auto industry, is spending a lot of energy and time on downtown real estate. Improved housing options and a more viable entertainment scene consume him.
“He’s sort of a contrarian,” said Ian Black, whose real estate brokerage represents Biter. “When people say don’t do it, he does it. It is how he built his business.”
With half a dozen recent property acquisitions in downtown Sarasota — and two more deals in the wings — Biter appears poised to bring his vision and his properties together. If or when that occurs, he could be one of the most influential landlords in Sarasota.
For now, at least, he appears to be thinking long-term.
“I could go in there, put up luxury condos and make a ton of money,” Biter said, sitting in one of roughly a dozen plastic desks — perhaps better suited for a school classroom than a corporate headquarters — that adorn his office. “That’s not what I want.”
The first tangible element of Biter’s vision is being finalized now, as he readies plans for a 180-unit apartment complex on Second Street — one of the first major downtown residential projects proposed since the real estate market’s sag some six years ago.
Biter describes the proposed 10-story complex — with its estimated cost of $30 million and units renting for $1,000 to $2,000 monthly — as “obtaining housing.”
Simultaneously, Biter intends to work to enhance retail space on Main Street that he acquired when Sarasota Hardware shuttered, and possibly develop a pub on land he owns downtown.
He is among a new breed of Sarasota residents who want the city to fully enact its 12-year-old downtown master plan, which advocates greater density, a mix of uses and better opportunities for people to walk to and from work or shopping.
The difference is, Biter’s money, growing portfolio of properties and expanding political influence both locally and nationally may let him bring that vision to life where others haven’t.
“In business and in life, you are either growing or dying,” he said. “There’s no such thing as keeping Sarasota the way it is. We can either grow this city or it will die.”
A knack for business
Biter grew up in a middle-class household in Philadelphia. His father was an administrator with the U.S. Department of Transportation. His mother sold real estate.
Young Jesse showed an early knack for business. If the power went out, Biter would fix clocks and other settings on neighbors’ VCRs for $1 apiece. By high school, he had graduated from lawn mowing to his own car detailing and stereo instillation business.
“It was a God-given gift,” Biter said. “Whenever there was an opportunity to make some money, I would do it. I never knew what I wanted to do in life, but I knew I didn’t want to work for someone else. That was my goal.”
Biter hit the jackpot with HomeNet Inc., a company that wired auto dealerships for cable and the Internet.
What started in 1996 with a $1,000 loan from his mother became a $16 million business 13 years later.
Along the way, a dealership asked Biter to create a website to put its inventory online. Biter knew nothing about the Web at that point, but he found a few books that walked him through it.
By 2010, that website development became so lucrative that AutoTrader, a company with $650 million in sales at the time, bought Biter’s company.
He declines to disclose how much he made in the sale, citing confidentiality agreements with AutoTrader.
“It was enough money to retire for the rest of my life,” he said. “But that’s not me. I wouldn’t know what to do with myself.”
Extended road trip
Thanks to HomeNet, Biter had few money issues, but Philadelphia’s weather was another matter.
Biter had never heard of Sarasota when he hopped in his car for a road trip to escape a damp, bitter Mid-Atlantic winter in search of warmth. He trekked through the Carolinas, across the Texas coast and up and down Florida.
He stopped off in Sarasota eight years ago, and never left.
He bought the Marina Tower penthouse for his primary home, snapped up some ground-floor office space for good measure, and went on to pay $1.6 million for retail space in the city’s Palm Avenue parking garage.
That purchase, as much as the condo, became personal. “I wanted to have a say in the tenants that moved into my backyard,” Biter said.
He now controls $4.1 million worth of Main Street storefronts, too, including the Pho Cali Vietnamese cafe and the Bullet Hole gun shop.
But his most ambitious project involved revitalizing a tired former bank building at Fruitville Road and Goodrich Avenue. Biter spent $2.8 million to buy the site, now used as an incubator for high-tech companies known as “The HuB.”
His top-floor office is a reflection of his personality — there are no interior walls in the space, a movie theater popcorn maker stands by the front entrance, and a keg full of Bud Light accompanies the mini-fridge for Biter’s 22 employees.
A dozen or so model airplanes sit atop black metal filing cabinets. A hobby pilot, Biter now owns, or has owned, real-life versions of each.
After school, his girls often hang out to play some intense games — bean-bag toss cornhole, foosball or maybe indoor soccer.
Biter primarily works from a computer mounted on a treadmill. A more traditional office chair collects dust off to the side.
“The only time I sit in that chair is to write checks,” Biter said. “I hate sitting in that chair.”
Biter’s Dealers United provides office supplies for 5,400 auto dealerships across the country. He’s thinking about taking the business global.
He finances start-ups, too. To date, he has taken a stake in some 50 companies — a smaller scale version of the TV show “Shark Tank.”
Though he might yet make a fortune off the venture capitalism sideline, it is downtown where Biter’s true aspirations seem to lie.
More livable city
Biter’s ideas dovetail with a city vision scripted in 2000 by a Miami architectural firm to make downtown more livable.
The hope, in part, was that younger people would move into Sarasota.
The Downtown Master Plan 2020 prompted a special district that allowed increased residential density, from 50 units an acre to 200.
But the economy stalled before significant development could occur, to the delight of growth control advocates, and the district has since expired.
Although Biter’s vision could spark another battle, it is unclear what kind of reception greater density would receive.
“There are some people who just don’t like this,” said senior city planner Harvey Hoglund. “They’re repulsed by the idea that they could look out their window and not see everything they do now.”
Biter also isn’t the first young entrepreneur to propose grand plans for downtown.
Beginning in 2007, Zeb Portanova planned a $1 billion mix of condos, theater space, retail, offices and luxury hotel rooms on a North Tamiami Trail tract.
But plans for the 18-story Proscenium fizzled amid a souring economy andfunds lost to a fraudulent financier.
Biter is confident he is different, thanks in part to a tight-knit group of advisers that include his real estate team, an astute attorney and a cynical banker.
But rental investors point out that developing apartments is not an ephemeral proposition.
“This is not an investment where you can just look at your ledger at the end of the year,” said Harvey Vengroff, who rents 1,400 rental units in Sarasota and Bradenton.
When he’s not re-envisioning downtown, Biter spends time making acquaintances on Capitol Hill. He caught the political bug from longtime friend and local Congressman Vern Buchanan.
Last year, he managed Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum’s campaign in Florida.
Later this week, he will host a $500 per plate fundraiser in his condo for U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio, who is considered a front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination in 2016.
Biter and his wife also have backed candidates with a maximum $5,000 allowed into the Santorum campaign, and held private fundraisers for others, including City Commission candidate Richard Dorfman.
Biter hasn’t ruled out politics in his future.
“I never created a business plan with this stuff,” Biter said. “I take calculated risks and lean on people who know more than I do.”